France: Revolt against pensions decree, Macron losing his grip

March 21, 2023
Highway blockade in Lorient, a local region in Brittany. Photo: @L_insoumission/Twitter

French President Emmanuel Macron’s government escaped being overthrown by the parliament by seven votes, on March 20, after Macron forced through, by decree, the attack on pensions that has caused a mass uprising.

Macron’s government is under so much pressure that most of his own MPs stayed away from parliament during the debate on the no-confidence motion.

His bill can now be signed into law, in theory. Under normal circumstances, activists have tremendous difficulty mobilising people against laws once they have been passed. But these are not normal circumstances, and the revolt continues to deepen. In the parliament, as the vote was announced, dozens of radical left MPs held up placards reading “See you on the streets!”.

Ongoing strikes against the pensions law by rubbish collectors have spread to new towns. All the country’s oil refineries, which were being blockaded, have now stopped production, and it takes a week to start them up again. Fifteen hundred petrol stations are already short of fuel. Many thousands of transport workers and dockers are still on strike. Thirty percent of flights were cancelled at two major airports on March 20. The staff at the Opera in Lyon closed down all shows for the March 18–19 weekend. Dozens more strikes continue in different sectors.

Motorways are being joyfully blockaded in scores of places, including Reims and Rennes. TV stations had tremendous difficulty finding drivers in traffic jams who would condemn the movement, so hated is this pensions bill. Bus depots and nuclear power stations, docks and universities are also blockaded. Groups of Yellow Vests have occupied the roundabouts they protested at four years ago. It is impossible to list all the protests, although they are often not yet generalised — most universities and high schools are at work, and most trains and buses are running.

As soon as the pensions bill passed on March 17, without a parliamentary vote, a new opinion poll showed that 68% of the population are “angry”, while only 7% are “satisfied” with the government. Among blue-collar workers and low-level office workers, 80% are angry (only 59% of management and senior technical staff are). Even 25% of those who generally vote Macron are angry (18% are satisfied, 41% are indifferent).

Of those who generally vote for Macron, 24% support the ongoing strikes and blockades. That figure rises to 88% of those who vote for the party of radical left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and to 68% of those who generally vote for the far right.

A couple of Macron’s own MPs are even calling on him to back down.

With this level of public support, the main question has to be that of leadership. The national leaders of the eight union confederations, in a rare show of unity, have been calling regularly for days of strikes and demonstrations. Another is planned for March 23, which will be crucially important.

However, the national leaders are not calling for an unlimited general strike, whereas the potential for one is obvious. Sorely-needed strike funds are generally left to local union branches to raise, whereas a national appeal by union leaders would raise millions of euros in no time.

In addition, national union leaders discouraged teachers from striking this week, while national baccalauréat exams are taking place (rather than pushing for the exams to be postponed as they were for COVID-19 a couple of years back).

The momentum we need to win will not come from above.

As soon as it became clear on March 20 that the government had survived by the skin of its teeth — 19 right-wing MPs voted for the no-confidence motion, under huge pressure from the movement — spontaneous demonstrations broke out across the country: in Paris, Rennes, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Nancy, Amiens Dijon, Nantes and many smaller towns.

In several places, demonstrators made good use of the rubbish bins piled up due to the garbage collectors' strike. In Paris, demonstrators played cat and mouse with violent police, while singing songs popular at recent demonstrations, but also a song about Louis XVI being decapitated and the risk Macron might suffer the same fate!

After a couple of weeks’ silence and hoping it would all blow over, Macron will appear on national television on March 22, in a major interview. Let’s hope he inflames the situation even more and his government gets thrown out very soon.

[John Mullen is a revolutionary socialist and a supporter of the France Insoumise. His website is]

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